Book review: The Infinite Desire for Growth

How did we get from subsistence farming to living long, prosperous, and entertaining lives — but wanting more? Is our current economic paradigm of an always-increasing GDP a viable option for the future, given issues such as climate change, social unrest, growing inequality? Why do we want it so much in the first place, and can we afford to keep yearning for it?

The Infinite Desire for Growth tackles these very questions in a light, accessible way, while still managing to provide surprising breadth on the topic.

“The Infinite Desire for Growth”
By Daniel Cohen
Princeton University Press, 165 pages | Buy on Amazon

Economic growth always has a spot in our headlines these days — be it to celebrate good news, or report on a bad year. It’s not hard to see why: economic growth, more than any other metric, is used by officials to showcase their achievements to the public. It is, in effect, the chief indicator that we check to see if everything is alright in our countries.

Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really add up. More wealth is nice, sure, but wouldn’t happiness levels be a better indicator of how well our lives are going? Wouldn’t net worth be a better indicator of how rich we are?

Why are we looking to the growth of the economy when life expectancy, access to goods and services, and the amount of useful free time we have are much more impactful on our lives? Especially when you consider that economic growth doesn’t mean everyone gets to enjoy more wealth, due to income inequality. This growth is also responsible for more and more environmental damage — we are knowingly hurting the planet and all life on it in our pursuit. So what gives?

Daniel Cohen, a French economist, chips away at this question in his very-aptly named The Infinite Desire For Growth. And you might be surprised to hear that, in his eyes, what lies at the root of this tendency isn’t want of riches or greed — it’s hope, and a search of meaning.

Economic growth, Cohen argues, has taken the place of religion. We may not pray to the Big Dollar in the Sky, but the hope of a good afterlife in Heaven as reward for a good life has been replaced by the hope of a good life on Earth, as reward for working hard.

Growth offers the promise of a better life to all of us. Despite rarely delivering on it (due mostly to a growing inequality gap), the promise in itself is enough to keep us happy. This transition is surprisingly new, made possible mostly by secularization and industrialization.

The Infinite Desire for Growth is a very unusual book about economics, in my eyes, because I actually enjoyed reading it. Cohen doesn’t start his analysis from those tropes economists so easily fall into — such as the idea that people are always rational actors when it comes to money. His book doesn’t look for the best way to maximize wealth, offers no tips and tricks on how to increase your company’s bottom line. It looks at how culture, society, politics, science, and geography influenced the birth and development of economies.

But most fascinating to me is that he describes these through the lens of individual desires, how they compound to create supply and demand, and dictate how they’re handled.

He examines how we’ve come to virtually worship the idea of economic growth, to take for granted that there will always be more wealth to share, that we will be enjoying a better quality of life than our parents if we’re willing to work for it. And then, of course, Cohen asks what this means for today, when economic growth is stuttering, sometimes absent, and humanity is damaging the very planet that keeps it alive.

It takes a very wide look at economies and the people who create them. The cost of this is that Cohen doesn’t always go into deep detail about the concepts he discusses, but he does supply us with ample references to support his claims.

The Infinite Desire for Growth asks how we’ll contend with a simple fact: working hard no longer guarantees social inclusion or income. Automation is increasingly encroaching in the workforce, lowering the price of work (wages), and making the wealthy wealthier. Ecological degradation is threatening all of us, but the poorest will suffer the most.

Cohen ends his book by arguing that today’s selfish economic model isn’t sustainable in the future. There simply isn’t enough Earth for all of us to always be wealthier than we were yesterday. Our obsession with economic growth, he argues, has run its course. In the 21st century, humanity will have to wean itself off material gain, and rethink what “progress” actually means.

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